Today is unquestionably the biggest day of the year in Bellingham. An estimated 35,000 people come to watch or participate in the Ski to Sea race. It’s a seven-leg 93-mile relay race that starts at the top of the 10,000 foot Mount Baker and finishes in Bellingham Bay at Marine Park. During the course of it, competitors ski, bike, canoe, run and kayak. It’s likely to be one of most demanding and grueling competitive races in the country.
The race began more than one hundred years ago in 1911 as the Mount Baker Marathon organized by the Mount Baker Club as a way to call attention to the area’s spectacular scenery. But it was suspended when a racer fell into one of the mountain’s crevasses. Then, in 1973, it was resurrected by Bellingham’s Chamber of Commerce with 177 people competing on 50 different teams. This year, there are 414 teams entered in the race of eight people each.
A few years ago, I was one of those. My team, the Angst-Ridden Mamas, made its first appearance in the big race in 2004. I had decided that to be fully considered as a Bellinghamster, I needed to do the race at least once. So I signed up a few of my most active friends, paid our entry fee and started to train. This is a race that attract not only local and amateur athletes but professionals and Olympians who come to be on teams sponsored by local business. Ours wasn’t one of those.
There are several different categories under which a team can enter. We chose to skirt the ultra-competitve professional categories and opted instead to put ourselves into the Whatcom County Women’s Recreational division. Not only did we think this gave us our best shot at not coming in last, we thought it best fit the skill level and activity of our team members, who like myself were all mom’s with school-aged kids.
That didn’t mean, however, that we didn’t taken ourselves seriously as competitors. Each of us were signed up for a leg in the sport that we competed or participated in regularly. As a kayaker who frequently paddled in Bellingham Bay, I took that, the final leg of the race. Mine was a five-mile course that started at Bellingham’s marina and ended at Marine Park across the water in the historic section of town known as Fairhaven. In some ways, I felt I had one of the lighter legs in the race compared to the 8-mile run down Mount Baker or the 18.5 mile canoe paddle on the Nooksack River.
The reality is, that each of the seven legs presents its own set of challenges so that none are a ‘piece of cake’ when it comes down to it.
My paddling partner, Pat, who also entered on another team that same year, and I increased the frequency of our kayaking practices out in the Bay and lengthened the amount of time that we were in the water as the weeks leading up to race day drew closer. We tried to improve our stroke technique and build up the distance we could get on each one. We usually put in our boats early in the a.m. or late in the day when the water conditions are most optimal and the wind less likely to be a major factor.
On race day, however, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your time and the conditions can be considerably treacherous with wind, waves and currents. While the first professional and Olympian-level teams often enter the water about 1 p.m., we were left sitting by our kayaks, waiting for our mountain biker to arrive well into the afternoon. I don’t believe I got the hand-off from Carolyn, my mountain biker that first year, until after 4 p.m.
The water was choppy but thankfully without white caps. I must note here that no one is allowed in the water without wearing a certified life vest. You’re also supposed to verify that you know how to get back on or into your boat should you capsize. I had both qualifications, as did my co-competitor Pat. Even with all the official chase and spectator motor boats along the course, there was a possibility that you’d need to be prepared to be in the water. The first turn around the buoy way out in the bay was especially difficult when the wind, coming from the west this particular year, kept pushing you off-course.
I rounded that buoy giving the other nearby paddler plenty of room. My heart was thumping pretty hard as I did so. Just as I completed my turn, one of the racers ahead of me dumped out. Kayakers are also required to stop and assist if another racer needs help but as one of the observation boats was already headed towards that paddler, I kept on course.
The wind was the biggest factor on the second of the three legs of my course. It seemed to pick up and kept shoving the bow of my boat back and forth . My rudder was almost ineffective at countering the force as my boat bounced up and down over the waves like a bucking bronc trying to toss its rider. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to wind up in the water. I wasn’t concerned about passing other paddlers, I just wanted to get to that second buoy, safely go around it and start down the final leg which I thought might be calmer water since it was more protected.
I managed to do just that and though the water was still choppy, I no longer was battling the wind as much and could actually start to make some headway towards the final buoy and the stretch to the beach in the park. I could hear voices from the shore cheering on those of us in the water. I even heard someone who recognized my yellow kayak and me call out my name.
With the hardest part of the race behind me now, I felt a surge of adrenaline in my tiring arms and lateral muscles, from where a kayaker really generates their power. I could make it. My team might not place but I we wouldn’t be the last ones in either. I expected that we would end up about in the middle of pack in our division. I had passed one other woman who I knew was also in that division. My friend Pat, was somewhere behind me.
As I neared the last buoy and I could now see and hear the crowd that had collected on the beach to watch the finishing leg. I pushed harder, grabbed the sides of my kayak with my thighs and put everything I had left into the homestretch. I wasn’t likely to make up much time on this last approach but I was determined not to lose any more either.
With a few final strokes, my kayak rammed into the pebbly beach where Boy Scout volunteers were waiting to grab the bow and help stablize the boat so I could get out. My legs wobbled and quivered as I lifted myself outside of my cockpit and scarmbled up the sloping bank to the big brass bell waiting for me at the finish line. I grabbed the cord still swinging from the previous competitor and gave the bell one big clang. I had made it. And I hadn’t capsized or lost my paddle or come in last.
My teammates waiting for me rushed over to give me a group hug. There was Connie who had started us off at 8 a.m. that morning on the cross country ski leg on the mountain, and Kathy, who took over from her for the downhill ski portion. Terri, who’s now on the Board of Directors for the race, had run down the mountain. Valerie gave us a big lead during her road biking leg to put Sue and Joanne in good position when they took off in their canoe. And Carolyn delivered to me the sweaty orange elastic wristband that we were all required to wear when she rolled across the finish line of the mountain biking leg. And our support crew–Marla and Gaye.
I was weary and dehydrated but felt exhilarated by the race, the camraderie of my team and the sense of having accomplished and completed something I wasn’t entirely certain I’d be able to do. Now, came the best part–the party!
I carted my boat back to the community storage shed then went home to quickly shower off the salt water and sweat before going to the party. I put on my yellow competitor’s t-shirt, given to each team member registered in the race, and walked around the corner to Vicki’s house where we were joining two other teams and friends for food, drink and fun The parties are what many regard as the best part of the race!
I had barely stepped in the door when my teammates surprised me with the declaration: “We won third place!!”
“What?” I said in disbelief.
“Yes, we came in third,” one of them explained.
Then someone slipped the bronze-colored medal attached to the blue ribbon over my head. They weren’t kidding. We had managed to medal in our first race ever. None of us were expecting it. We all just wanted to finish. So when the “Angst-Ridden Mamas” was called out by the race officials to come to the podium and receive our medals, only one of our team members was still there to receive them.
In my wildest dreams I hadn’t thought we’d place in a race of 300 teams with 2,400 competitors! I was so surprised, as were my teammates, and proud of what we had done together for fun and so that I could feel a full-fledged Bellinghamster.
Our team competed in the race the following three years. While we didn’t repeat the glory of our inaugural appearance, we had a lot of fun and pride in participating and giving it our best on this one big day. As I watch racers come in today, I’ll be thinking of how it felt, how hard it was and what a great time I and my team had being part of a very memorable Memorial Day weekend!